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Can (Role-) Playing the French Revolution En Français Also Teach the Eighteenth Century?

Peggy Schaller

Introduction | Changing the Game with a Game | Roles | Readings | Rules | Results | Post-Mortem

Game Preparation: The Roles, or Playing the Part

A major consideration prior to the actual game playing in class was the extensive preparation required for the successful implementation of such a non-traditional format. I quickly decided not to translate the individual role descriptions into French after the first translation was completed. The role sheet for the Jacobin representative alone is a nine-page, single-spaced description that took an entire afternoon to translate into workable French and required countless trips to the dictionary to ensure the accuracy of my historical French terms. It was clear that asking my intermediate-level students to assimilate and present—in French—such complex information in such a short period of time would discourage them before the game even began. In addition, because I would ask students to complete this foundational education outside the classroom to maximize in-class learning opportunities, it seemed best left in their native language to ensure the most thorough download of information (Fink 167). Hopefully, then, they would be encouraged to use this foundational information as the jumping-off point for their own research, and—on a more practical if personal note—I would better use the time that I had saved avoiding those lengthy translations to focus on other implementation aspects of the game.

The other issue of importance that needed to be addressed before the game was played was the allocation of roles to individual students. Each would take on the role of a specific member of the political scene of 1791 Paris. Lafayette, Louis XVI and Danton are the only characters specifically named in the game book, with the latter two representing the political extremes of the game in which individuals—each associated with a faction—have distinct backgrounds, strategies, and objectives. All of the character descriptions provided in “Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791” could be compared to the Player Categories character descriptions (PC) in D&D, in which characters participate in the action/adventure of the game and whose base characteristics are pre-determined with the understanding that players will then develop and expand their persona to increase power and influence (Gygar 171–210). The individual members of the factions then enhance those characteristics, fleshing out their own specialized identities. In our game, players are provided with intricate historical and socio-political details and then encouraged to complement that information with what Dee Fink refers to as foundational knowledge to be acquired outside of the classroom, which is essential to the students’ understanding and acquisition of their character roles both historically and politically (31).4 For example, one student enhanced her role as a female leader of the crowd by familiarizing herself with the writings of Olympe de Gouges and referring to that author’s alternative “Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne” (“Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen”) also written in 1791. Through her research of primary sources along with secondary sources authored by Dena Goodman, Joan Landes, Huguette Krief, and Shirley Roessler, among others, she created her own socio / political objectives that she then argued persuasively by applying the knowledge of primary texts, the influence of well-crafted rhetoric, and her own feisty personality.

One of the ideal methods utilized in role-play situations—both in the classroom and during gaming—is the rotation of roles to keep certain students from taking control and dominating conversation (Brookfield 106). “Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791” did not lend itself to such rotation, so the roles assigned lasted for the duration of the play period. This particular class had twelve students, which is also the minimum recommended for the game. Each of the four factions—the aristocracy, the Feuillants or centrists, the Jacobins or leftists, and the Sans Culottes of the general population—would have three representatives. The President of the newly formed National Assembly, whose role includes running each class when the assembly is in session, would also come from within these groups. With the various skill and experience levels of French represented in the class, I decided that it would be better to select specific roles for specific students and—maximizing my role as Game Master—to manipulate discretely the election of my student of choice to the role of President. Her qualifications included a good grasp of the events leading up to the Revolution and its aftermath, a fairly good level of French (Intermediate Mid according to ACTFL standards), and a regular pattern of class participation and leadership. Moreover, and more importantly to the game, she was extremely organized with her work and did not let others in the class intimidate her. She would, I hoped, provide the stability needed so that all who wanted to speak had a chance to do so. Thus the chaos experienced in our early sessions—reminiscent of what Carnes and Kates describe as the “inchoate musings” of 1791 France—would be tempered by a plan of sorts (7). She sent students the debate topics in advance of each session of the National Assembly, thus allowing the essential topics being considered for the new French Constitution to be addressed in a logical sequence. Students were also able to prepare for in-class debates on those specific topics as they integrated those weekly subjects into three assigned responsibilities: researching/writing their weekly journal or newspaper articles, preparing their written speeches, and completing the readings – both assigned and selected from outside sources. With a restricted time frame and a lot of material to cover, it also made sense to cull some of the more time consuming tasks that added little value to the final learning objectives. After all, we had only three weeks to devote to finalizing the constitution, not the three months it took the National Constituent Assembly to complete their work following the return of Louis XVI to Varennes!

Verbal balance was essential to allow for historical and cultural debate while still improving the amount of conversation occurring in French during the game. As in most classes, the personalities of students mixed with their skill and experience levels to produce varying levels of content understanding as they sought to improve their conversational abilities. Thus, the outspoken student who had spent a semester in France needed to be moderated so that the more novice students with burgeoning period comprehension but a lack of confidence and expertise could be encouraged to share their ideas in their imperfect and halting French. Here again, I opted to position students based on my impressions of their class performance to date. A well-spoken and outgoing student was given the role of Louis XVI in the hope that she would be able to deal with the constant criticism that was to come. This was also true for the roles of the other two aristocrats—the noble and the clergyman—who would bear the brunt of much Rousseauian criticism and would need good, independent research skills to develop their defenses with historical data and the assistance of Burke and such modern critics as Darrin McMahon, whose writing on the counter-Enlightenment provided excellent arguments against the philosophes and the representatives of the Third Estate. Given the serious nature of these three roles and their declining power in the overall structure of the game, these students would clearly benefit from a certain level of maturity and confidence, but they would also need an ability to collaborate and support each other as their authority diminished under the anticipated laws of the National Assembly. The other lawmakers—Feuillants and Jacobins—were played by an assortment of students; strong speakers were set alongside less confident ones so that faction members could encourage each other. Finally, the crowd or Sans Culottes were also played by an assortment of students with diverse personalities and language levels. Certainly Danton would need leadership and speaking prowess, but the spontaneity and non-traditional thinking that his fellow faction members might display would certainly complement those characteristics.

Next Section: Game Preparation: The Readings . . .

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